The Medal for Excellence is Columbia Law School’s equivalent of an Olympic gold medal, but it was coincidental that this year’s 68th annual Winter Luncheon, held Feb. 24 at the Waldorf-Astoria, had a sports theme. The recipients of the Law School’s highest honor were NBA Commissioner Emeritus David J. Stern ’66 and the Hon. Anita Blumstein Brody ’58, who has presided over the NFL concussion case in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
Dean Gillian Lester, the Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law, praised the honorees for having “set a standard to which our students and fellow alumni can and should aspire.” She commended Brody for being a role model and mentor for women lawyers. “Judge Brody has broken through gender barriers, shattered glass ceilings, forced open doors, and blazed the trail for other women in the profession,” said Lester. Introducing Stern, the Dean hailed him for transforming the NBA over 30 years into a “wildly lucrative” global behemoth. “Understandably, David will ultimately be remembered for the legendary business deals and negotiations that have transformed the NBA into what it is today,” she said. “But his intense commitment to social responsibility and social justice has also left an indelible mark.”
In her acceptance speech, Brody demonstrated her warmth, sense of humor, and rigorous devotion to the judicial system. “I take special note that my grandsons Nate and Zack flew all the way from Miami—although I urged them not to make the trip, they insisted on coming,” she said. “Actually, they told their mom there was no way they would miss an event where grandma and David Stern were getting the same award!” Turning more serious, she reminded the more than 300 guests that they are the bedrock of civil society. “We as lawyers have a responsibility to keep our democracy strong and be steadfast in our defense of the rule of law. We are protectors of the law,” she continued. “We must speak out. At this time, this may be our most important professional undertaking.”
Watch Anita Blumstein Brody's speech:
Stern, who was chair of the Columbia University Board of Trustees from 2000 to 2004, also addressed the necessity for lawyers to be bold, proactive, and vigilant. Making what he called “a game-time decision,” Stern substituted his prepared remarks with a prescient and relevant speech that he gave 20 years ago. “From where I sit, a mentality is threatening us and those who would disagree with us,” he said. “Civil discourse gives way to ugly dialogue. Intelligent analysis is replaced by nasty characterization and one-liners. Name-calling becomes a substitute for discussion. There seems to be a pernicious practice emerging where an epithet is rhetorically effective based on a headline or a catchy sound-bite that leads the six o’clock news.”
He told his colleagues to remember their unique role in society. “We as lawyers have been trained to function in an adversarial system with civilized conduct and dignified discretion,” he said. “Lawyers have an opportunity and an obligation to change this mentality and civilize debate. That’s my romantic notion of what we do and what we have been trained to do.”
And he implored the audience to never forget the core values of Columbia Law School. “We are protectors of the Constitution, fair play, due process, and the condition in which we leave the planet for our children,” he said.
Watch David J. Stern's speech: